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Arab refugee influx causes Europe to rethink its open borders

When Tunisians rebelled against a corrupt government and drove out President Zine Ben Ali earlier this year, they received the applause of Europe’s political class.

When thousands of them turned up at Italy’s and Malta’s ports soon thereafter, they were greeted with much less enthusiasm.

Now their arrival has led to proposals for the overhaul of the so-called Schengen agreement, a system that allows the citizens of 25 European states – and their visitors – to cross borders without any controls.

EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers meeting in Brussels today discussed how to interpret the wording of the agreement that allows member states to temporarily reinstate internal border controls within the Schengen area where and when “a threat to public order” warrants.

In the past, such measures were taken with the permission of the EU Commission in Brussels to prevent, for instance, violent soccer hooligans from traveling to international matches. But some countries, led by France, argue that member states should be entitled to regard – and treat – a larger group of immigrants trying to cross internal borders as a threat to public order. A majority of the ministers attending followed that argument.

The first country to act – even before any changes to the Schengen system had been agreed to – was Denmark. Within two weeks, the country would reintroduce document checks at the borders to Germany and Sweden, the Danish government announced yesterday.

Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen who is heading a minority government, depends on the support of the populist anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. DVP leader Pia Kjærsgaard called the decision “a victory of reason.” In the past few weeks, Mrs. Kjærsgaard had repeatedly argued the need to keep “criminals from Eastern Europe and illegal economic migrants” from entering Denmark.

The Danish move prompted strong reactions in Europe. Germany’s Justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, said the freedom of movement in the Schengen area was an invaluable achievement for millions of Europeans. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, French member of the European Parliament, asked the Danes to make a decision: “Either they accept the rules or they leave the Schengen agreement. And then they can apply for visa when traveling in Europe. One for each country.”

The 1985 treaty, signed in the village of Schengen, Luxembourg, by Germany, France, and the Benelux countries did away with barriers and checks at the borders between those states. Today, 25 countries have joined the agreement: all EU members with the exception of the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania; plus Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. Some 400 million people live within the Schengen area; they can step onto a train in Finland and get off in Portugal, covering 4,000 kilometers and crossing a dozen countries without having to present their passports even once.

The freedom of the Schengen agreement collides with another European system: managing the influx of irregular migrants from outside the Union. According to EU rules, these migrants have to remain in the country they arrived in unless they can be sent back to where they came from. Given the geography of migration routes today, that means that Greece, Italy, and Spain are taking the brunt.

In the past, most immigrants were keen to travel on to the richer countries in the north, such as the UK, Germany, or the Netherlands, and Schengen made it easier for them to reach most destinations. The 30,000 Tunisians who have arrived in Italy lately are mostly heading to France. They speak the language and many have relatives or friends who already live there. Italy, eager to ease the burden on their reception camps in Lampedusa and Sicily, issued temporary residency permits and ushered them on.

That’s when French President Nicholas Sarkozy stepped in. On April 17, a train carrying Tunisian migrants was held in Ventimiglia, a former checkpoint at the French-Italian border. Italy lodged a protest with the French government; a crisis summit in Rome between Mr. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi some days later diffused the diplomatic row and started the drive for a review of the Schengen agreement that prompted today’s extraordinary Brussels meeting.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström insists the system will not be undermined. “These measures should be a last resort. We need more Europe, not less,” she said. “And creating a safe Europe does not mean we’re building a fortress Europe.”

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